I posted this over at Catholic Cuisine but am repeating it here. Originally published in 2009.
In a few days we begin the holiest days of the year, the Sacred Triduum.
In planning for Holy Week, my first thoughts go to menu planning. Is it good that I’ll be doing extra things in the kitchen to prepare for Holy Week? Am I being more of a Martha than Mary and detracting from the feast? I watched Joanna Bogle’s Feasts and Seasons on EWTN and she also mentioned something about being in the kitchen more during holydays such as Holy Week than the rest of the year. She had an opposite opinion and allayed my fears — spending the extra time making these treats for the holy days marks the time and food as special, unique. She said it more eloquently, but it made me feel more confident to continue.
Holy Thursday is marked with many food traditions. I’m sharing my Holy Thursday meal traditions, but also wanted to mention a few cultural ones from around the world.
Traditions of Holy Thursday
Father Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Easter Book (1954) explains the popular names of Holy Thursday:
The second day of the celebration of Tenebrae bears the liturgical name “Thursday of the Lord’s Supper” (Feria Quinta in Coena Domini). Of its many popular names the more generally known are:
- Maundy Thursday (le mande; Thursday of the Mandatum) — The word Mandatum means “commandment.” This name is taken from the first words sung at the ceremony of the washing of the feet, “A new commandment I give you” (John 13, 34); also from the commandment of Christ that we should imitate His loving humility in the washing of the feet (John 13, 14-17). Thus the term Mandatum (maundy) was applied to the rite of the feet-washing on this day.
- Green Thursday — In all German-speaking countries people call Maundy Thursday by this name (Gründonnerstag). From Germany the term was adopted by the Slavic nations (zeleny ctvrtek) and in Hungary (zold csutortok). Scholars explain its origin from the old German word grunen (to mourn) which was later corrupted into grün (green). Another explanation is that in many places, before the thirteenth century, green vestments were used for the Mass that day.
- Pure or Clean Thursday — This name emphasizes the ancient tradition that on Holy Thursday not only the souls were cleansed through the absolution of public sinners but the faithful in all countries also made it a great cleansing day of the body (washing, bathing, shaving, etc.) in preparation for Easter. Saint Augustine (430) mentioned this custom. The Old English name was “Shere Thursday” (meaning sheer, clean), and the Scandinavian, Skaer torsdag. (Because of the exertions and thoroughness of this cleansing in an age when bathing was not an everyday affair, the faithful were exempted from fasting on Maundy Thursday.)
- Holy or Great Thursday — The meaning of this title is obvious since it is the one Thursday of the year on which the sacred events of Christ’s Passion are celebrated. The English-speaking nations and the people of the Latin countries use the term “Holy,” while the Slavic populations generally apply the title “Great.” The Ukrainians call it also the “Thursday of the Passion.” In the Greek Church it is called “The Holy and Great Thursday of the Mystic Supper.”
In some Latin countries sugared almonds are eaten by everybody on Maundy Thursday. From this custom it bears the name “Almond Day” in the Azores. In central Europe the name “Green Thursday” inspired a tradition of eating green things. The main meal starts with a soup of green herbs, followed by a bowl of spinach with boiled or fried eggs, and meat with dishes of various green salads.
Easter the World Over by Priscilla Sawyer Lord and Daniel J. Foley (1971) mention the Czechoslovakian traditions for Holy Thursday. I’m not sure if this is a Czech or a Slovak tradition:
On Green Thursday (Holy Thursday) the Czechoslovakians eat “Judases” and greens–a soup of green herbs followed by a green salad. Housewives busy themselves with the preparation of the Easter foods that will be consumed on the holy weekend. They say:
Soon will come Green Thursday
When we shall bake the Lamb;
We shall eat Judases farina
And three spoonfuls of honey.
“Judasas” are served with honey at breakfast in Czechoslovakia. These are breakfast cakes of twisted dough, made to look like rope, suggesting the fate of Judas the Betrayer, who “went and hanged himself” in remorse after he had identified Jesus to His enemies. Honey is considered a preventive against disaster (p. 58).
I have searched through all my books and on the Internet, and I cannot find any recipes for Judases in the English Language. If I had the Czechoslovakian word perhaps I’d have better luck. It’s been mentioned as a bread, sometimes a cake, but no recipe.
Jennifer already mentioned the tradition of eating green for Green Thursday, including a wonderful recipe for Spinach Pie. Evelyn Vitz in A Continual Feast suggests a Seven-Herb Vichyssoise, and fish with a green herb butter, spinach, a mixed green salad, and green desserts such as Mint or Pistachio Ice Cream or Lime Sherbet. The custom of the green foods can be traced to the Jewish Passover meal with the bitter herbs, but also a health focus, as spring is arriving, and the green herbs provide a healthy spring cleansing. Since some people serve all green meals on St. Patrick’s Day, that would be another place for inspiration for serving green foods.
Since I was a young girl my family has gathered to celebrate a Holy Thursday meal. We never called it a Seder, sometimes we called it a Passover meal. But the purpose was to remember Jesus’ Last Supper, and to prepare the family for their participation at the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. I did try to learn more about the Jewish Seder meal, and over the years we would try to be more “authentic”. But the men in my family were always a good barometer — “Why are we doing this? We’re not Jewish.” We are Catholics trying to unite with Jesus, not necessarily the Jewish faith. I found in my reading that the current Seder meal wasn’t established until after 70 A.D., and most sources say 500 years after Christ’s death. So after thinking about it, why would I implement a ritual that was written after Christ, still awaiting the Messiah when He has already come? Wouldn’t it make more sense to look back at the Old and New Testament and just imitate what Jesus the Messiah did at His Last Supper?
So while it was interesting to study, I realized I wasn’t sharing the night with Christ. I respect the Jewish religious ritual of a Seder meal, but not something to implement in my home. I used the Old Testament and New Testament as inspiration. Francis Fernandez (In Conversation With God, Volume 2) mentions that the Last Supper is “to be the last Jewish Passover and the first Passover in which her Son is both Priest and Victim” (p. 252). (See also The Hunt for the Fourth Cup by Dr. Scott Hahn.) So I want to look forward to our Paschal Feast, which is the Mass, and particularly the Easter Vigil liturgy.
I found it so interesting that in Celebrating the Faith in the Home: Lent and Easter in the Christian Kitchen by Laurie Navar Gill and Terea Zepeda (available from Emmanuel Books) that Mrs. Gill came to a similar conclusion:
The “Christian Seder” or Passover meal on Holy Thursday has become popular in some circles in the past few decades. I have attended such dinners and have even tried to put one on myself. I enjoyed learning more about the Jewish Passover traditions as Our Lord observed them — the symbolic foods, the toasts, the questions and the beautiful Jewish blessing prayers.
Yet my own sense is that too closely to imitate a Jewish Passover rings falsely at my table. Our Holy Thursday menu does include some symbolic foods from the Passover meal. We
read about both the Exodus of Jews and the story of the Last Supper, but we do not imitate the narrative and blessings from the Jewish observance.
Instead, we try to concentrate on the fulfillment of the Passover in Jesus. Through His blood, He has saved us from death. And in the Holy Eucharist, He feeds us with His own flesh and blood. The high point of our Holy Thursday observance is our participation in the true carrying on of that last Passover
meal. No re-enactment around our table, no matter how authentic, can compare with the Truth that we encounter in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
While reading Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, I was struck by the description of Holy Week in the Benedictine Monastery. While this is a fictitious work, the author based the writings on actual convent life. I have the whole quote here but I loved this description of the table for Holy Thursday dinner, and have used it as inspiration for my own table:
On that same day, the Abbess, following her Master’s example, became the servant of the whole community, serving them at midday dinner. The sight of the refectory was inviting: each place was laid with a snow-white napkin, a glass of wine, a bunch of grapes, a small wheaten loaf, and a brown earthenware bowl of vegetable soup. Apricot puffs and cheese were laid along the side tables. When the nuns were seated, the Abbess came in, wearing a white apron and white sleeves, and with her came the kitchener, Sister Priscilla, bearing a great silver salver of fish. The Abbess went to every nun, serving her and laying beside her plate a nose-gay of small flowers: violets, wood anemones, primulas, grape hyacinths, tiny ferns, pink heaths.
Father Francis Weiser from his Religious Customs in the Family gives some wise instructions on a family celebrating a Passover-type meal on Holy Thursday:
In many homes the memory of the Last Supper is brought out by the arrangement of the main meal in the evening. Of late the custom has been suggested in various books and pamphlets, of imitating the ancient Passover meal even in its details. A yearling lamb is to be roasted and served with bitter herbs and a brown sauce. Jewish matzos, together with wine, are to be distributed by the father in silence to all members of the family, thus commemorating the institution of the Blessed Sacrament.
The use of some pious “ritual” at the supper on Holy Thursday is surely to be recommended. However, an imitation of the Last Supper of our Lord in its details does not seem to be advisable. Children, with their gift of keen and faithful observation, might easily conceive the ritual at the family table as a “photographic” reproduction of the Last Supper and thus acquire inaccurate and unhistorical notions about it. To mention only one example, are we sure that Christ used massah (unleavened bread) of the shape and size of modern Jewish “matzos”?
Our Holy Thursday Meal
I love how Florence Berger in Cooking for Christ answers the apostles’ question:
Whenever I hear Peter and John asking the Lord, “Where wilt Thou that we prepare the Pasch?” I want to interrupt and say, “Come to our house, please do.” But even today we, as Catholics, can bring Christ and His friends home with us. When we receive the Holy Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, He lives within us. When we gather guests at our tables to re-enact the last supper, Christ is in our midst. For, as the antiphon of Holy Thursday sings, “where charity and love are, there is God.” There is a divine bond between our altar and our home.
Holy Thursday celebrates the institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Eucharist was established within the Passover meal by Jesus with His Apostles. A wonderful way to bring home the richness of this feast is to imitate the Last Supper by recalling some aspects of the Passover meal, and a foot washing ceremony with the family in imitation of Jesus. This a wonderful tradition to start in the family. If things are rushed on Holy Thursday, move the meal sometime before Holy Thursday (Wednesday night, for example) so that the whole family can participate in imitating Christ at the Last Supper.
The idea is serving foods reminiscent of the Passover meal as the Jews did in Egypt and Christ did in imitation of the Exodus, not in imitation of Judaic religion. Elements of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper are included to prepare us for participation at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Incorporating the various senses in this meal really helps active participation, particularly for children.
Holy Thursday is one of the biggest feasts in the Church year, since it commemorates the institution of Holy Orders and of the Holy Eucharist. Sunday-best should be worn by participants and the table should be beautifully decorated, with a white tablecloth (in imitation of the white vestments used at Mass) and even the good china and silver. For dessert (since this is a special feast day, no Lenten abstaining here), bake a cake in the shape of a lamb (there are numerous types of lamb molds available at craft stores or baking supply stores). Before or during the dinner, Exodus 12:1-20 is read —- the story of the first Passover. Then the New Testament reading about the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist is read from either Matt 26:17:30; Mark 14:12-26 or Luke 22:7-20.
Simple Menu Suggestions:
These ideas are loosely following the instructions in Exodus, “A lamb…a year-old male lamb without blemish…That same night they shall eat its roasted flesh with unleavened bread and bitter herbs….”
- Bitter Herbs: Cooked spinach and raw celery sticks dipped in salt water, mixed green salad (the greens also incorporate the “Green Thursday” tradition)
- Unleavened bread: Crackers or store-bought matzohs, pita bread or homemade unleavened bread
- Wine: red wine and/or grape juice
- Lamb: Leg of lamb, or roast lamb, lamb chops, or meatloaf baked in shape of lamb (use a lamb cake mold)
- Haroset: Applesauce with raisins, reminding of the bricks and mortar the Jews laid in Egypt. (This is an additional element we have added.)
Our Holy Thursday Dinner Menu:
- Roast Beef (Reminder of the Passover Lamb, and Christ the Paschal Lamb)
- Mashed Potatoes (allergy free)
- Spinach (reminder of the bitter herbs)
- Applesauce (reminder of the Charoses, the bricks and mortar in Egypt)
- Bread (reminder of the Unleavened Bread and the Eucharist)
- Grapes (reminder of the wine of the Last Supper which becomes the Blood of Christ)
- Dessert (Because it’s a festive day in the eyes of the Church)
Since we leave for the Mass that evening, we usually don’t have wine, but I will serve grape juice.
Our family doesn’t like the taste of lamb, so I’m actually serving roast beef. It looks similar to lamb. It seems Holy Week has extra constraints, so while I want to make a festive meal, sometimes time, energy, (and nowadays) and budget is lacking. One year my mother actually made a meatloaf in the lamb cake mold pan. Definitely memorable.
We’re saving the lamb cake for Easter, and I will choose a dessert that won’t have leftovers to taunt us during Good Friday. Depending on my time, I might make unleavened bread, following Maria von Trapp’s recipe. If I use regular bread it will be small individual loaves at each place setting. For my son with food allergies, I will serve gluten free bread sticks. Another alternative is serving Hot Cross Buns, again, like Maria Von Trapp.
Before eating, the family gathers for the “Washing of the Feet”, which I’ve described here in a previous post.
The children are reminded that this meal is different than what the Jews celebrate because Christ already died and saved us, so we are not still awaiting a Messiah. We are not obliged to follow the directives for the Passover meal, we are merely doing it in imitation of Christ, so we can use all of our senses to know, love and serve Christ. While eating the reading from Exodus 12: 1-20, the story of the First Passover, is read out loud. This is the same first reading at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
The meal is simple, joyful, and family-friendly, and wonderful preparation to enter more deeply into the liturgy of the Sacred Triduum.